TOKYO — Japan's "exam hell" might just be cooling down.
This studying marathon is what high school students nationwide must do to pass the university entrance exams that are a focal point of K-12 education here. Grades from those tests - calculated down to the decimal point - determine what college a student can attend. That, in turn, often shapes job opportunities down the road.
But recently, some Japanese colleges have been reconsidering their practice of measuring a student's worth in terms of exam grades alone. With the Ministry of Education's backing, they are introducing an "office admissions" (OA) system that evaluates students based on extracurricular activities and recommendations, as well as their exam grades, much the way American schools do.
The shift away from entrance exams represents a sea change for the education system and, observers say, for the country. Advocates say diminished emphasis on college-entrance exams will change K-12 education, ending the focus on rote learning. This, they argue, would be a crucial step toward reinvigorating Japan, now burdened by recession and troubled by increasing numbers of reluctant, rebellious students.
Critics charge that the end of entrance exams could threaten Japan's highly valued egalitarianism. But in a sign of the depth of the changes ahead, educators say that the answer to Japan's problems may just be a new emphasis on quality over equality.
"Until now, Japanese education has always been knowledge-oriented," says Hikota Koguchi, dean of academic affairs at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, which now admits 10 percent of its students on the OA system.
"You can see it in the bureaucratic quality of Japan today. Society has lost its vitality, we don't have enough creative, original minds," he says. "Having a university full of people who can only study isn't all that good anymore. Unless we correct the overemphasis on egalitarianism, there's no future for Japan."
Colleges aren't legally required to hold entrance exams. Indeed, since 1967 the Ministry of Education has been sending guidelines to the country's colleges, urging them to use various measures to evaluate potential students, from recommendations to exams.
The schools have always insisted that exams are the only objective way to judge candidates. But Japan's declining birth rate is making education a more competitive industry these days. Fewer consumers mean schools have to make changes to attract business.
In 1990, Tokyo's blue-chip Keio University began admitting some students on the OA system. Seven other private universities have partially adopted the OA system since then. Next year, three well-regarded public universities will follow suit.
While these schools are only using the OA system selectively - in a few faculties or only for a certain percentage of admissions - education ministry officials say the shift will yield benefits.
"A written exam doesn't tell a school what potential students have after they enter," says Akira Noie, head of the ministry's entrance exam department. "[The OA system] is a way to find more motivated, creative students. We're not saying the entrance exam is an evil, we're just saying it's not everything."
The ministry expects the college-level changes to create a domino effect in K-12 education, where rote learning is largely the rule. "This is a way for high schools to change too," says Mr. Noie. "We often hear complaints from high schools that because the universities are focused on exams, they can't adopt a more creative approach to education."
But straying from the tried and true makes some people nervous. Critics argue that the OA system will dumb down education, that the rigorous standards of Japanese schools will slide if more "creative" teaching is introduced.
"There are many cases where not-very-smart students are being accepted at top-ranking universities these days," wrote prep school teacher Hiroshi Yamada in an opinion piece in last month's Sapio magazine. "This recommendation system will make things worse."
An employee at one of Japan's ubiquitous prep schools, or juku, Mr. Yamada teaches kids whose parents send them to prep school after their normal school day is done. The added hours of nighttime and weekend study are supposed to give them an edge - although juku vary widely in quality and wealthier parents can afford better schools. Fewer entrance exams mean fewer juku.
Others argue the end of entrance exams will create rents in Japan's social fabric. "We have to remember that there are some areas that were meant to be equal, and the exam system is one of them," social critic Tetsuya Miyazaki writes in the February issue of Shukan Bunshun magazine.
Mr. Miyazaki argues that some students will suffer if schools start to look for extracurricular activities in addition to good grades. Students who have to work part time for financial reasons will suffer from "opportunity discrimination," he says, as they won't be able to volunteer the way other students will.
Students themselves have none of these misgivings. "Universities should definitely look at students' abilities, not just their marks," says Maiko Kitagawa, a high school junior in Tokyo. "I just hate it when I see older friends endlessly cramming for the entrance exams."
At Tsukuba University, one of the national universities that will begin using the OA system next year, the mood is upbeat. "People are all different," says Makoto Natori, vice president of academic affairs. "We can't apply one fixed measurement to everybody."
He argues that the OA system will allow students to rediscover the love of learning after years of studying simply to make the grade. "We want students with enthusiasm, students who can think on their own," he says. "That's what Japan needs right now."